Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Briggs and Tolkien

So, it feels good to read a case of persistence paying off. Thanks to researcher Katy Makin's willingness to sort through bundles of letters and documents, she found a real treasure: a letter from J. R. R. Tolkien to renowned folklore scholar and fellow author Katharine Briggs. Taken together with two letters in the Bodleian, this letter in the Folklore Society Archive at University College London forms a brief correspondence:  

Briggs to Tolkien, October 11th 1954.  [Bodleian]

Tolkien's reply, 13th October.  [Folklore Society Archive]

Briggs' follow-up, 21st October.  [Bodleian]

This thus falls in the brief period between the publication of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING (29th July) and that of THE TWO TOWERS (November 11th). The brief excerpt from Tolkien's letter accompanying this articles reveals that Briggs had two specific critiques. First, she zeroed in on the changes made to try to bring the the Gollum chapter in THE HOBBIT into line w. the new account of those events in the new book (something that did not get satisfactorily resolved until the changes of 1944/47). And second she found it hard to believe that anyone wd run with his hands in his pockets as Bilbo is said to have done.

Regarding Gollum she replies 'I hope you will approve of my treatment of his unhappy psychology'

In addition to the gollum scene she alludes briefly to the return of the king: 'hope this is Aragorn' --a reminded that the third volume's title is more ambiguous than some wd have it. 

I'm particularly glad to learn of Makin's discovery because I've long been certain some correspondence existed between K.M.B. and J. R. R. Tolkien but have never managed to make any sort of methodical search for it.   

The timing of Tolkien's and Brigg's exchange is significant. The first of Brigg's two masterpieces --the novel HOBBERDY DICK (1955)* -- was not yet out, while the other, her best-known work, AN ENCYCLOPEDIA OF FAIRES (1976)**,  wd not come out until a few years after Tolkien's death. In addition to warm praise of Tolkien's work, Brigg's ENCYCLOPEDIA marked the re-discovery of THE DENHAM TRACTS, with its appearance of Hobbits in the work of a folklore collector in the 1850s.

  TSR clearly used Brigg's DICTIONARY as a major resource for folklore creatures in the D&D roleplaying game.*** The same is true of Wizards of the Coast for Magic: the Gathering; a copy of Brigg's book was in WotC's games library of resource and reference materials.  

Here's the article about Makin's discovery:

--John R.

*We know that CSL read HOBBERDY DICK, though rather condescendingly


***My own copy is starting to disintegrate; a note inside tells me this was a gift from Charles Noad, a detail I had forgotten.

Friday, November 24, 2023

Italy and Tolkienians

So, sometimes admirers of Tolkien find themselves amid surprising company. I was recently reminded of how reception to his work can differ strongly from country to country. For example, while in the U.S. Tolkien's work by and large was embraced by liberals of a hippy/ counterculture cast, in Italy Tolkien was much admired by conservatives (including arch-conservatives). That dichotomy persists, as witnessed to by a major exhibition in honor of his life and works: 


I strongly became aware of this when I attended a small Tolkien conference Robin Reid organized in Commerce, Texas in about 2014 or thereabouts. There I was a panelist with Doug Anderson and an Italian Tolkien scholar whose name I have forgotten, and first heard about right-wing youth camps like 'Camp Hobbit'. 

Looking back at this now, in conjunction with the big new Italian exhibit, this interests me most as yet another piece of evidence about Tolkien having worked himself into the mainstream, even if it's paradoxically slightly different mainstreams. Rather than small displays on college campuses, the past few years have seen high-profile exhibits in Oxford, Paris, New York City, and now Rome. Or as the museum's curator put it, The show, he said, was a watershed moment. 'It has been legitimized' ." This point is driven home by the name-dropping: attendees to the Rome event include the prime minister, the minister of culture, and the economy minister, some of whom got private tours.

An odd moment comes with mention of a wall displaying blurbs praising Tolkien, including one from Ringo (who is not so surprising) and another from Obama, which is. At least I've never heard before anything to indicate that Obama was a fan of Tolkien. Here's the quote:

Mr. Obama was quoted in the exhibit as saying he had moved on from the Hardy Boys

In a second quote, from an interview with student journalists, Obama is reported to have said

. . . that when he was about 13 years old, he started reading 'more serious books' like To Kill a Mockingbird, that made you think a little bit more. They weren't just kind of adventure stories, but they were also, you know, stories that taught me about social problems'

I have to say the part that attracted me most while reading the piece is the news that a photo from Tolkien's Italian costal cruise, of JRRT "posing in a monastery on vacation in Italy" was apparently included --that is if I'm reading the captions rightly. I assume that image is behind the paywall. Pity.

Thanks to Andrew H for the link to the New York Times article 

Those who want to pursue the issue in more depth, including information on the 240 page catalogue (TOLKIEN: UOMO, PROFESSORE, AUTORE)  can find it at the Tolkien Collectors website:,above%20all%20a%20modern%20mythmaker.

--John R.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Tolkien Coin

So, I found out about this from a friend, and then managed to get a copy through the help of another friend. Many thanks to both.

This new commemorative (actual money value: two pounds) shows Tolkien's iconic initial on one side and King Charles on the other (the first coin I've seen showing the new monarch). Three words describing Tolkien appear near the bottom, and their choice is interesting: 




I don't think anyone wd disagree with the first,* and the third is equally appropriate. It's interesting, therefore, to note, that in the accompanying folder that holds the coin Tolkien is described as a Philologist. I suspect the replacement of "Philologist" by "Scholar" on the coin itself is due to the fact that most people don't know what a philologist is. 

The middle term, Poet, is also an interesting choice, and the one I think wd surprise Tolkien the most (albeit pleasantly so). 

There's said to be another inscription on the rim of the coin, but since I can't get the coin out of its holder without damaging the latter, I'll have to take this on faith. The rim-inscription is said to read  Not all those who wander are lost, Bilbo's riddle about Strider, which has become the iconic Tokien quote these days. 

Based on some of the descriptions I saw online I originally thought the coin had tengwar on it, but now that I can take a closer look at it I have to say this seems not to be the case. Pity: to have an invented language/script appearing on a real-world coin wd have introduced an interaction between real-world and secondary world.

--John R.

--current reading: Thr Secret Commonwealth

*Unless they disapprove of Tolkien altogether. Some do.

Saturday, November 18, 2023

THE LETTERS OF JRRT (expanded edition)

So, the big news among Tolk folk this week is the release of the revised and expanded edition of THE LETTERS OF J. R. R. TOLKIEN. The original book came out in 1981 and ran to 462 pages; this new volume passes the seven hundred page mark (708 to be exact). The new material comes  from restoration of previously abridged passages; I'll particularly be interested in additions of previously unknown or uncollected letters.*

I expect like its predecessor it'll be the most detailed and insightful source for 'Tolkien on Tolkien', both in what Tolkien says about his works in letters to his readers and in autobiographical passages.  

Of course this is not a Complete Letters -- that's probably still a good thirty years off. But the original LETTERS is probably, along with OFS, the work by Tolkien I most frequently consult. And I don't expect that to change.

So, a good day for a major resource to be enhanced and re-released.

I know I'll be working my way through it for weeks to come.

--John R.

*I assume any letter that appeared in the 1981 version will be grandfathered in

Holding a Grudge

So, the most interesting thing I found in the Stoker biography was not about Stoker himself but Sir Henry Irving, whom Stoker served as right-hand man, manager, fixer, and all around alter ego. 

It was Irving's lifelong ambition to be knighted, not so much for the personal honor but to demonstrate that acting was an art on par with writing poetry, composing music, and the like. But when he died, his estranged wife tried to prevent his being buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.  Now that I call holding a grudge.*

--John R.

--current reading: THE SECRET COMMONWEALTH by Phillip Pullman.

*she failed, by the way

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

This can't be good

So, have you ever had that experience where you're reading a book and realize halfway through that you've read it before? I had something of the sort happened to me last week, only slightly weirder.

I'd been reading two books, going back and forth between them, when I lost track of where I was in one book. It was the denser of the two but  you think  I'd be able to skim around in it and find where I'd been, but this turned out not to be the case. I eventually picked a spot I felt reasonably certain about, and read on from that point--better to overread than underread, I decided.

In my defense, the book I got lost in is Timothy S. Murphy's new detailed, dense, and complex study of WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON AND THE RISE OF THE WEIRD: POSSIBILITIES OF THE DARK.* I'm glad to see the case made for Hodgson being one of the greats, but I found it a difficult book to unpack. Murphy is capable of committing a sentence like 

We might say that The House on the Borderlands 

(1908) presents a fantastically accelerated 

diachronic overview of deep cosmological

time's abyss as Hodgson imagines it. (Murphy .132)**

The other book, by the way, is BRAM STOKER: A BIOGRAPHY OF THE AUTHOR OF DRACULA by Barbara Belford (1996), which does a good job of showing how Stoker was linked to contemporaries like Wilde, Shaw, Gilbert, and, more surprisingly, Whitman and Twain. Unfortunately Belford has A Theory*** she keeps dragging in without ever really making a case for. Pity.

--John R.

--current reading: resting the brain with the newest Murderbot book, just out on Kindle.

*As a connoisseur of footnotes, I have to say I admire Murphy's ability to pack so much into his title, which essentially consists of title, subtitle, and sub-subtitle.

**I shd note that his book is part of the series Perspectives on Fantasy (2023)

***briefly, that Stoker had a female side he sought to find expression for.

Thanks, Andrew.
If that's the case, wish Belford had been more forthright about that side of Stoker

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Cat Communication

So, thanks to Janice for this one. 

A study by animal behavior researchers in Batesville* shows that cats are expressive. By which they don't means half a dozen expressions but more like 276. A good example of scientists 'discovering' something pretty much all cat-lovers already knew.

The main gap in this project is that they didn't expand it to include cat interacting w. people

Here's the link.

--John R.

*(in the NE corner of Arkansas, within about an hour's drive of Memphis; we lived near here in Jonesburo for about a year when I was growing up)

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Now & Then


So, this will be interesting.

This week they're releasing what's being billed as the last Beatles song. It began life as a poor-quality cassette recording by John from 1979 upon which he'd written "for Paul". Yoko, in an admirable show of generosity, passed it on to Paul, who got together with George and Ringo to see what they cd do.  

This was meant to be the third of three Lennon songs that were featured on THE BEATLES ANTHOLOGY part one (the mediocre "Free as a Bird") and part two (the haunting "Real Love"). But when the three surviving Beatles listened to this third song, the sound quality was too poor to be usable; the song was abandoned, and the third volume left with a v. obvious hole in it. 

It was not until recently that Sir Peter Jackson offered up software his people had developed that cd separate John's voice from the piano. Add in some guitar recorded by George in the mid-nineties intended for the third ANTHOLOGY album (circa 1996) along with new material by Ringo and Paul, and 

Here's a twelve-minute documentary account of the story behind the song. It will be of no interest to anyone not deeply interested in The Beatles, but shd be of a lot of interest to those who are. Here's the link:

--John R.